Wednesday, March 18, 2009

May the Best Cheese Win

The 2009 United States Championship Cheese Contest is underway this week inside the Lambeau Field Atrium in Green Bay, Wis. With a record  1,360 entries in 65 categories, 24 judges from 12 states have their hands and mouths (literally) full trying to discern the winners in this biennial contest.

Yesterday, I spent the day at the contest helping one judging team analyze, taste and score 38 low fat and reduced fat cheeses. Every year, the contest asks for "B Team" volunteers - meaning folks who are willing - for free - to schlep cheese from a palette, open the box, record the number, haul the cheese to the judging team, then repack the cheese and haul back to the palette.

My "B Team" partner this year was none other than the very strong and fearless Tammy Welles, a technical service manager at Northland Laboratories in Green Bay. 
Between the two of us, we lifted WAY too many 40-pound blocks of cheeses all day. Tammy brought strength to the table and I brought height, so between the two of us we rocked. 

Our judging team consisted of Mark Johnson, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, and Kory Hynonen of Oshkosh Cheese Sales. These two fellows poked, prodded, squished, tasted and spit out nearly 60 cheeses during the course of the day. (Judges don't actually swallow the cheeses - can you imagine eating that many different cheeses over the course of three days -- pass the Pepto Bismol please).

It took about four hours to judge 38 cheeses in the lowfat category, which ranged from 40-pound blocks of lowfat cojack to long cylinders of provolone to cups of flavored cheese spread to packages of string cheese. Toward the middle of the morning, after one particularly offensive jalapeno jack cheese, Tammy & I were instructed to save the rest of the pepper cheeses for the end of the judging class. My favorite quote from Kory: "That last one just about did us in."

The best aspect about the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest is that it is open and free to the public. Judging continues today from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Then tomorrow, the real action happens, as Nick Barnett, Green Bay Packer and cheese enthusiast, makes an appearance from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. to sign autographs, and then Troy Landwehr, Master Cheese Carver, transforms 640 pounds of cheddar into a work of fine art in from 9 a.m. to Noon. 

Then, from 10 a.m. to noon on Thursday, the championship cheeses will be judged - the blue ribbon winner from each of the 65 classes will be judged again, this time to determine the top 3 winners, including the 2009 U.S. Championship Cheese.  The final round of judging will be telecast live on the contest website. Photos are also uploaded daily and results are posted in real time on the web.

So, good luck to all the cheesemakers and may the best cheese win! Check back here on Thursday for the announcement of winners.

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